In an increasingly contested Asia, with China rising and America rebalancing, middle powers are struggling to redefine their defense strategies. One such player, Australia, has now done so in a way that seeks to reconcile its extensive national interests with a close U.S. alliance, a web of new Asian security partners and a relationship of mutual respect with China.
It almost succeeds, but stumbles on a critical factor – money. The current Australian Labor government is underspending on defense and so far the conservative opposition – likely to win power in an election due this September – is not promising much more.
Four years ago, the then Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd launched a defense white paper amid furious concern about China’s destabilizing rise. A much stronger Australian Defence Force was promised with new-generation submarines, cruise missiles, and joint strike fighters. This blunt document and its unusually clumsy diplomatic handling added to a drumbeat of political mistrust between Australia and its largest customer.
But a lack of credible budgeting undermined this vision of projected Australian firepower, and Canberra was caught committing the cardinal sin of statecraft: speaking loudly whilst carrying a small stick, the opposite of Teddy Roosevelt’s dictum.
With a quite different defense white paper launched last Friday, successor Prime Minister Julia Gillard treads a notably more cautious line, declaring that Australia "does not approach China as an adversary." China is listed this time as a military partner, complete with bilateral exercises, confidence-building dialogue and even an Australia-China Military Culture and Friendship week.
The document builds on Ms. Gillard’s optimistic narrative of a prosperous ‘Asian Century’. It offers some even-handed and sophisticated appraisals of U.S.-China relations, and some acknowledgement of the need to watch for and manage risk, but does not fully convey how the Asian strategic environment is deteriorating and the possibilities of conflict rising.
So whereas the Chinese saw the Rudd plan as a red rag, it is tempting to caricature Australia’s new strategy as raising a white flag.
That is certainly not fair: alliance commitments still feature fundamentally in Canberra’s military strategy. The white paper says Australia will uphold a rules based-order, is prepared "to conduct conventional combat operations to counter aggression or coercion against our partners," and commits to buying electronic warfare aircraft that could help in such a contingency.
It also confirms steps to use Australian territory in support of the Obama Administration’s Asia pivot, beyond the presence of Marines in Darwin. Notably, airfields in northern Australia and the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean will be upgraded. This needs to be done for Australia aircraft anyway, notably the new P-8A Poseidon fleet currently being acquired, but will open the way to their possible future use by the U.S. military.
Notably, the white paper rejects the idea, advanced by prominent scholar and former official Hugh White, that Australia will somehow have to choose between the United States and China, and emphasizes the likelihood that those powers will succeed in avoiding major conflict.
The white paper also redraws the map of Australian security in a way that may not appeal to Beijing. It makes Australia the first country officially to define its region of strategic interest as the Indo-Pacific. This in itself is not an anti-China move, since the Indo-Pacific is above all an objective description of the super-region in which China is rising, given its large economic, energy and diplomatic equities across the Indian Ocean. And it is a natural fit with Australia’s two-ocean geography and the increasing attention being paid to resources development and military infrastructure in the country’s sparsely-populated north and west.